How to Write Horror Well
Note: This blog post, for once, is primarily about the dark, geeky art of game development, which, as you should know, I occasionally dabble in when not up to my old writing tricks. It was originally written for a game design forum and was intended to discuss how to create a genuinely scary horror game, but on second thought, I realised that there’s very little in this post that actually has anything specifically to do with games. Hence, you could take it as a discussion of how to create effective horror in general. Just replace the word “game” with “book” (or whatever) and “player” with “reader”, and it will fit just fine. Or, if you don’t think these arcane “game” things I mention are in any way similar to any component of writing, you can move on. It’s your call.
Horror games… Like them or loathe them, they are becoming even more popular by the month, and for good reason; if done well, if actually made scary, they can become instant classics, taking the player on a journey through emotion and fear they will never forget. If done badly however, they can amount to nothing more than cheap, boring adventure fare.
Scaring someone through a video game can actually be done as effectively as in a good horror movie or book. Examples of decent horror games include Silent Hill and the more recent Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Look these up and play them! They’re scary! So, here is the question this article hopes to provide the elusive answer to: What exactly makes a horror game scary?
The Original Vision
The first, most important part of making your own horror game, is to get in your head a firm idea of what you want your game to be, what atmosphere you want it to have, and how you want it to scare players (or readers, for you writer types). This is the most important question you must ask yourself: is your game going to be a shocker-cum-gore fest like Resident Evil (or most slasher films) or is it going to perhaps go for a more subtle approach, using some intrinsic psychological imagery to get under people’s skins such as in Silent Hill or maybe just try to scare people with an intense atmosphere of lurking fear such as in Fatal Frame (something more in the domain of H.P Lovecraft)?
Will the game be very straight forward in its approach, simply dropping the player into a zombie infested city, leaving them to survive, or will it deliver its horror more subtly? Will there be an emphasis on asking questions and piecing together the story and cause of the nightmare, or will the origin of the evil already be known to the player, with emphasis instead being placed on survival?
These are the questions and ideas that will determine how your game will play out. You must envision a firm idea of how you want to scare people and what feelings you want to invoke. You can’t have everything. This is why you must pinpoint the horror elements your game will rely upon early on, so that you can build your story, gameplay, puzzles and atmosphere around them.
The Story And Setting
These are perhaps the two most driving factors which will contribute to your game’s atmosphere. The golden rule of thumb is that your story must be engaging right from the outset. While in an RPG (or basically anything else that follows a traditional story structure), it is acceptable to start things off “normally”, and without incident, in horror games (or horror anything in general), you often don’t want to do this. If you do this, it can start to bore the player, which will actually decrease the amount of impact the horror elements will have when they finally do arrive. It’s important that right from the outset, the player knows they are entering unfamiliar territory, and are in danger, that just because the game has just begun does not mean they are safe. Often this is why horror games begin with little backstory, instead dropping players into the nightmare and leaving them to piece together the story themselves. This mystery, this need to know what’s going on will provide one of the main motivations to continuing. There has to be a reason that the player is experiencing these horrors. There must be something to work towards. In the game Silent Hill 2, the reason the player kept persevering with the nightmare was to finally discover once and for all what has happened to cause the situation and put the turn of events into motion.
Your story however can amount to nothing unless you have a suitably mysterious or scary setting for your game. The number one thing to remember here is that horror games never take place in a location that is entirely “normal”. There is always something a bit “odd” about the locations visited in the game that makes them seem unfamiliar and foreboding to the player and enforces the feeling of terror or uncertainty.
I’ll give you a few examples of locations used in successful horror games:
Silent Hill series – The games take place in a misty, monster infested town and many bizarre other worlds. There is something obviously “wrong” with the town and it is very far from normality. There’s a strange mystery at work and the overwhelming sense of uncertainty is what scares the player.
Resident Evil series – These games take place in more “normal” locations unlike Silent Hill, such as vast cities, old manor houses or scientific facilities. However, these locations are still far from normal. They are almost always abandoned, and in a state of chaos and disrepair, letting the player know that they aren’t safe.
Forbidden Siren/Siren series – These games take place in alternate realities, twisted versions of the real world, where nothing seems normal and almost everything seems to be evil or serve some sinister purpose.
As you can see, neither of these survival horror games take place in a “normal” environment. There is always something a bit “wrong” with the settings of the games, and there is always some sort of clue or influence that hits home the fact that the player is not in safe territory.
The Actual Scare Factor
With your story, setting and intended atmosphere/game direction decided, it’s time to start thinking of the ways in which you’re actually going to scare the player. You must try to remember to match your scare style to your intended atmosphere. if you’ve decided to take on a psychological atmosphere for example, you will not scare the player by suddenly sending ten zombies through a window. That scare tactic would seem out of place and have less effect, and would be more suited to an intense, panic survival styled game in which the player hardly has time to think as they are constantly chased by relentless monsters.
Instead, using psychological horror, you might scare the player with perhaps a flashback from the character’s past, or a piece of cryptic writing or symbolism that not only seems intimidating to read/look at, but also has a relevance in the storyline. In a psychological game, the object is to get under the player’s skin, to scare them deep down inside and leave a lasting impression. Rather than scaring them with full on gore or jumpy scares, you will load the game with seemingly meaningless things that do in reality serve some purpose. It’s all about symbolism. The object is to exploit the player’s very human psychological responses to a situation. People feel scared when they are lost or uncertain about what is going to happen. You may exploit this by making them confront seemingly unexplainable events and horrors, or by making all of your locations full of darkness and disembodied noises, creating a strong sense of uncertainty. This is also called “Lovecraftian” horror, as Lovecraft is the man most credited with inventing it, though earlier horror writers, such as Edgar Allen Poe, used this method of horror to great effect.
Meanwhile, for a gore or survival themed horror game, you would take the opposite route to your scare tactics. Here is where we use what is called panic horror or slasher horror. The object of these types of games is to make the player feel underpowered, alone and hunted. They are scared or feel tense because there’s so much pressure on them to survive in a hostile environment. The monsters are numerous and powerful, while they are alone, and health and weapons/ammo are scarce and hard to find. Safe areas are few and far between. The player is always on edge because they know they are being chased all the time, and a monster could be just outside the next door or waiting to jump through the next window. These are the types of games where “jump scares” (a scare made up of a fast moving or intimidating piece of imagery and a loud sound effect) are made the order of the day. When the player is scared that a monster may be anywhere around them, having one suddenly leap out of a closet or through a wall can really set off a great response in the player.
As you can see, pinpointing what emotions in the player you want to exploit and then thinking of ways to do so is the key to making a scary horror game. It would also not do you bad to read up a bit on psychological responses to fear so that you are aware of what tricks you can use.
Either way, the main thing to remember is to balance out the number of scares very carefully. Don’t overdo it by adding too many scares (lest the player become used to them and no longer scared) and don’t add to little either (which may cause the player to become less susceptible to the game’s atmosphere as they know nothing hardly ever happens in your game) and make sure that the scares continue all the way through the game. Don’t just put some scares in the early stages of your game to establish the atmosphere and then rely on the impact of those scares for the rest. Don’t just put them in the ending phases just to keep the atmosphere from running dry. Balance them out and distribute them evenly throughout the game. This way the player can be sure there’s always another scare coming, and this makes sure the fear doesn’t let up.